Monday Medical: The heart is not lonely at cardiac rehab

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— Pete Kenney is not surprised that Yampa Valley Medical Center’s cardiac rehab program recently earned certification from the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation.

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Christine McKelvie

Monday Medical

Monday Medical columns publish weekly in the Steamboat Today's Yampa Valley Health section. Read more columns here.

The 51-year-old single father of two young boys counts on cardiac rehab to keep his struggling heart as healthy as possible, which is no easy task.

Ten years ago, Kenney had a heart attack at 30,000 feet while on a commercial flight. A cardiologist and two medical students who were on board saved his life.

Several surgeries later, Kenney moved from Boulder to Steamboat Springs and found cardiologist Dr. Will Baker, cardiology nurse Roxanne Tegl and cardiac rehab coordinator Susan Cowan.

“This is the best care I’ve ever received,” he said.

Cardiac rehab has been offered at the hospital since 1992. Cowan, a registered nurse, has been the coordinator since 1997. She describes the program as “comprehensive, caring for the total person.” From orientation through graduation, each person receives an individualized care plan and lots of one-on-one attention.

“We ask participants, ‘What can you do in your life that is satisfying and makes you feel better?’ Then we set goals,” Cowan said.

“Every 30 days the entire plan is re-evaluated. Dr. Baker reviews, comments and signs off. I also communicate with and provide feedback to each patient’s primary care physician.”

During the national certification process, which spanned a year, Cowan measured outcomes in four areas for 40 patients from Steamboat Springs, Craig, Kremmling and McCoy. The most impressive improvement was a collective 62 percent increase in weekly physical exercise.

Quality of life — how people are feeling functionally, socially and emotionally — increased 30 percent. When asked whether the program met participants’ individualized expectations, 100 percent answered “yes.”

For some patients who approach cardiac rehab hesitantly, that represents a big turnaround.

“People have to go through a process of accepting what happened to their hearts and learning how to trust their bodies again,” Cowan said.

“We provide education and support so change can happen. Patients enjoy the company of one another and get inspired. They recognize what they can do and regain their confidence.”

“Working one on one with Susan, you just feel safe,” Kenney said. “You’re in the hospital, and the ER is right around the corner. Susan knows exactly what’s wrong with my heart and is actively monitoring me.”

A key cardiac rehab goal is to effect behavioral changes — such as quitting smoking, eating healthier foods and getting more exercise. Cowan said insurance companies and Medicare cover the program because these healthy changes reduce the risk of future heart problems.

“Numerous scientific studies have shown that people who participate in cardiac rehab programs report a better quality of life and improved functional status,” Dr. Baker said. “They are also less likely to experience another cardiac event.

“Cardiac rehab is not only for those who have had a heart attack but also for anyone who has had heart surgery of any type,” he added. “This includes valve surgery, coronary artery angioplasty (balloon procedure) and stenting, or even symptoms of heart disease that are being treated medically.”

Cowan helps people set personal goals for physical exercise, nutrition and stress management. Each participant gets an exercise prescription, which can change every two weeks. Cowan refers some patients to Yampa Valley Medical Center’s Integrated Health program.

Kenney is grateful for Integrated Health Director Angela Melzer’s help in dealing with the emotional trauma that his heart condition has caused. He is able to talk candidly with Melzer about his life, and he appreciates her whole-person approach.

Three times per week, Kenney can be found in the cardiac rehab gym where he enjoys the supportive, safe atmosphere.

“The primary thing about cardiac rehab is the comfort and care that Susan provides and knowing that you’re being monitored,” Kenney said. “The benefits of physical exercise are well-proven, and my heart still wants to exercise.”

Christine McKelvie is a writer and editor for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at christine.mckelvie@yvmc.org.

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